When I decided to write The Shadow War, my first step was to overcome a serious handicap: a Ph.D. in English. I'd been through both MA and PhD programs in Creative Writing, and taught at universities for many years, so I was fully indoctrinated into the "There's Literature and Then There's Everything Else" school of fiction.
Guest column by Glen Scott Allen. who has taught
at Reed College, the University of Utah, and Towson
University. He's traveled in Russia to do research for
The Shadow War (Nov. 2010), and lived briefly in The
Netherlands. He is also the author of the nonfiction
book, Master Mechanics & Evil Wizards, as well as
numerous short stories and essays. He currently
lives in Maryland. His website is GlenScottAllen.com.
(Glen is giving away two free copies of his book to
random commenters! Comment within one week.)
Yet all my life I've been a huge fan of spy novels. I knew that some of the greatest "serious" writers of all time—Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Henry James—had written books that today one could find on the "Thriller" shelf at a bookstore; and I knew that good suspense writing created fictional worlds as compelling as anything to be found in the Great Works.
So Do #1: Don't let all those years you've spent in workshops be an impediment. Use those "literary" skills. Good writing is good writing, regardless the label they'll put on it in the library.
Which brings us to Do#2: Just like they told you in Writing 101, good fiction springs from good characters, not necessarily good ideas. It's the characters that will carry your reader through plots and conspiracies, and just because the novel is "plot driven" doesn't mean they can be shallow or mere stereotypes. Your characters need to be living, breathing actors, with pasts, quirks, and conflicts, not cardboard cutout mouthpieces for Good and Evil. Only then will readers get attached to them and want to tag along on their adventures.
Do#3: Believe in what you're writing. I remember in grad school an editor from a big publishing house told us that the writers on his Commercial list were every bit as convinced they were writing great fiction as those on the Literary list. "Jackie Suzanne (Valley of the Dolls) believed she was right up there with Shakespeare," he said. And his point wasn't that Suzanne was delusional, but that her stuff worked because she believed in it. The moment you try to "write down" to your reader, you've lost them.
Don’t #1: There are, however, some important differences between writing a thriller and writing other kinds of fiction. I always counseled my students that, if they knew the ending of the story before they began, they were bound to strangle a story's own creative development. With thrillers, the process is different. They're more like putting together a puzzle, and it's important to have all the pieces before you begin assembly, or you're likely to near the end and discover something vital is missing. So don't just jump into a thriller with no idea where it's headed; map it out thoroughly before you start writing.
Don't #2 is related. Don't think of thrillers as "all play, no work." Do your homework. Much of The Shadow War required historical research both here and in Russia, and there were many late nights in musty libraries when I thought, is this worth it? Isn't writing one of these supposed to be fun? But think of writing a good thriller like hosting a great party: You do lots of hard work ahead of time so your guests can relax and enjoy it. Good research not only makes your book more solid, it also often turns up unexpected and very useful tidbits.
Which brings me to my first Don't Even Think About It—DETAI #1: Don't even think about writing to the latest trend. For one thing, by the time your book is out (1-2 years from the time you finish it), that trend will no longer be trendy. For another thing, unless that trend is something you already know a lot about, there are dozens of people ahead of you. "Write what you know" is just as true in thrillers as literary fiction; look for the odd or secret or bizarre side of your current interests and you'll find your "MacGuffin" (as Hitchcock called it), as well as your sustaining passion.
If there's a DETAI #2 it would have to be, Don't even think about quitting. As many know, The Da Vinci Code was Brown's fourth novel, not his first; he had to keep trying until he got the right combination of topic and times. The thriller market is tough on the new guy (believe me, I know), but it is always looking for something fresh and original, a new voice. Maybe that new voice is you.
(Glen is giving away two free copies of his book to random commenters! Comment within one week.)